Next-generation ion engine development begins
Posted: June 30, 2002

NASA's Office of Space Science in Washington has announced the selection of a team for the development of an advanced ion propulsion system - an alternative to conventional chemical propulsion that could revolutionize the way we send science missions into the solar system. A second team was selected to develop advanced ion optics, which are critical components of ion engines.

The agency's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland was selected to lead development of the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) system, which will use xenon gas and electrical power to drive future spacecraft. Additionally, a team led by Boeing Electron Dynamic Devices, Inc. of Torrance, Calif., was selected to pursue development, fabrication and testing of carbon-based ion optics, critical components of high-power ion thrusters that have traditionally limited thruster lifetime.

"The NEXT ion engine is an exciting next step in ion propulsion and will enhance a whole host of ambitious new space science missions," said Carol Carroll, In-Space Propulsion (ISP) Program Executive in the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

The NEXT Project is a proposed two-part endeavor. The first phase is a one-year effort to design, build and test initial versions of ion thrusters, propellant feed systems and power processing units, which convert solar array power into forms useful for the ion engine. At the end of Phase 1, NASA may exercise a Phase 2 option to complete hardware development and integrate components into a full-scale system.

The total potential value of the Glenn award over the next three and one-half years is approximately $21 million. The total value of the Boeing team award is approximately $4 million. Total NASA funding for NEXT system development activities is approximately $27 million.

Ion propulsion systems convert electrical power and xenon propellant into high-speed ion flows that accelerate spacecraft with fuel efficiencies about ten times higher than conventional chemical propulsion.

"Technologies such as ion propulsion are key to enabling shorter mission times and could reduce costs for future space missions, which permits a greater focus on space science," said Les Johnson, In-Space Propulsion manager for NASA's Advanced Space Transportation Program at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The Marshall Center will administer both new awards.

An ion thruster converts electrical power and xenon gas into a high-velocity flow of positively charged ions. Metal grids that exert an electrostatic force accelerate these ions, much the same way bits of lint are pulled to a statically charged comb, but with a dramatically different effect. The accelerated ions leave the thruster at speeds of up to 89,000 mph, propelling the spacecraft forward. The result: fuel efficiency that exceeds conventional chemical engines by as much as a factor of 10.

The new ion thruster development program builds on the success of the Deep Space 1 mission, a NASA probe launched in 1998 to validate advanced flight technologies. Deep Space 1 was powered by an ion thruster just 12 inches in diameter, which accelerated the spacecraft to a velocity of 7,900 mph over a 20-month period.

Deep Space 1 made history during its close fly-by of Comet Borrelly in September 2001, when it returned the clearest images and best scientific data ever gathered about a comet. The success of Deep Space 1 was a first step in the exploitation of high-power ion propulsion for a broad class of future space missions, including possible planetary visits. The NEXT ion engine will be capable of carrying significantly more payload and have a longer lifetime than the Deep Space 1 ion engine.

The In-Space Propulsion Program seeks to develop advanced propulsion technologies that can enable or greatly enhance near and mid-term NASA science missions by significantly reducing cost, mass, and/or travel times.

The In-Space Propulsion Program is managed by the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters and is implemented by Marshall. The program is supported by NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.; Glenn Research Center, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston and NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

NASA partners with cutting-edge industry leaders, the nation's academic institutions and other government agencies to realize its ambitious in-space propulsion goals.

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